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Prime Minister rules out inquiry

The group of 28 illegal immigrants who were brought ashore by the AFM in the early hours of last Sunday. Photo: Edward Santilla/Crew P-52/AFM Maritime Squadron

The group of 28 illegal immigrants who were brought ashore by the AFM in the early hours of last Sunday. Photo: Edward Santilla/Crew P-52/AFM Maritime Squadron

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi yesterday ruled out an independent inquiry into the army's behaviour during a rescue operation in which 27 migrants were sent back to Libya over the weekend.

Fifty-five Somalis rescued from a sinking dinghy on Sunday were divided into two groups on the high seas with 28 being brought to Malta and the rest taken to Libya. The army said those who boarded the Libyan boat did so voluntarily but the claim was disputed by migrants who spoke to The Times.

The decision to divide the group raised concern among humanitarian organisations because Libya is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which protects the rights of asylum seekers.

When asked yesterday, the Prime Minister said he was convinced that the rights of the migrants sent back to Libya were safeguarded. "The army behaved according to established rules and procedures and if this weren't the case, I would have taken action but from what I have been told by the army they observed all procedures and protocol," Dr Gonzi said.

The Somali pregnant woman allegedly separated from her husband during the rescue operation has been released from jail and is with relatives in Tripoli.

Her husband, in detention at the Armed Forces of Malta's Safi barracks, claimed that his wife had been transferred to the Libyan boat during Saturday's unprecedented joint operation involving Maltese and Libyan rescuers.

According to his brother, who is in Libya, the woman was "alright" but the situation was "problematic" because she was pregnant.

Speaking in broken English, the man said the woman was freed from jail on Wednesday but others who were with her on the Libyan coastguard boat were probably still in prison. The woman is seven months pregnant and, according to her husband, Maltese soldiers had insisted he board the Libyan ship to identify her, something he refused to do because both feared ending up in Libya.

The army has denied the allegations.

The UN High Commission for Refugees yesterday reiterated its concern about the army's claim that migrants voluntarily went back to Libya.

"The UNHCR has not received a detailed account from the authorities about the rescue operation but we continue to follow the situation closely. While the UNHCR appreciates that many lives have been saved through Malta's interventions at sea, we reiterate our appeal for all involved states to continue to ensure that people who are rescued, and who may be in need of international protection, obtain access to safe territory and asylum procedures," a spokesman for the UN body said, confirming that nine women, some pregnant, were among those returned to Libya.

The Jesuit Refugee Service also shed doubts on the army's explanation that migrants chose to return to Libya, pointing out that families could have been separated in the process.

The decision to send some of the migrants back to Libya was heavily criticised by Alternattiva Demokratika, which accused the government of imitating the Italian authorities who entered into "shady dealings" with the Libyans on the return of migrants.

The Green party's European affairs spokesman, Arnold Cassola, said it was shameful that both the government and the opposition agreed on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's "dubious way of handling the issue".

"This is really an issue where the EU should wake up from its slumber and adopt a common European policy on migration rather than leave it in the hands of individual countries," Prof. Cassola said.

The Graffitti movement described the return of migrants to Libya as "an atrocity" and insisted the Prime Minister call an independent inquiry to establish the facts surrounding the case.

A pregnant Somali woman who was transferred to Mater Dei Hospital upon arrival in Malta after the rescue operation gave birth to a baby boy on Tuesday. The mother and baby are in good health.

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